Full plot spoilers for Kimi below
Arguably the freest filmmaker working today, Steven Soderbergh makes whatever he wants, and what he wants are lean, mean genre pieces that don’t have a whole lot to them. I don’t just mean thrillers, but there are a lot of thrillers, of which Kimi fits right in.
The speed at which Soderbergh churns these out is its own stunning feat. Since returning from “retirement” in 2017 he’s made seven movies, all of which show off his almost uncanny feel for where the camera should be, how quick a scene should move, and what the essence of the story he’s telling is.
Perhaps because I’m knee-deep in yet another book on Howard Hawks, the similarities between the two directors seems striking. Hawks churned out movies from the 1920s-60s, respected entertainments that weren’t really admired until the Cahiers du Cinéma guys elevated Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock to premiere American director status. Their films did have style, even if it was repetitive, and they did have meaning, even if they weren’t highbrow. Soderbergh, in his post-retirement phase, is doing much the same, and just like everyone did to Hawks pre-Cahiers attention, his films are being respected but not admired, and more damagingly, aren’t receiving any rigorous critical attention.
Basically, we’ve learned nothing from our past, writing off slick entertainments as relatively mindless in comparison to “intellectual” fare. But Soderbergh’s films of this era have dipped into a bevy of serious issues of our time and timelessly serious issues, and Kimi is no different, with the meaty stuff only getting a passing mention while most of the writing goes to praising Soderbergh for keeping alive lean genre fun.
But all entertainment reflects our culture, and in the clichés and tropes hides accepted cultural ideas, their repetition, even in “mindless” films, reinforcing that they are standard, not to be questioned.
I’ve had issues with this era of Soderbergh, particularly Unsane, which plied in very real, very detrimental societal standards and film tropes and largely got away with it. Kimi is not as overtly troubling, but at its core is a troubling tale told lightly, its insertion into a techno-thriller degrading it to its most familiar beats, and in doing so, reinforcing ideas that desperately need challenged.
More overtly intellectual films that took on similar premises are broken down to within an inch of their lives, most notably Promising Young Woman, a movie Kimi has more in common with than most are picking up on. Because yes, this is a big tech thriller, but Angela, the agoraphobic woman who overhears a violent crime recorded by a slightly more advanced Siri-like program named Kimi, has mental health disorders stemming from an assault that the police put her on trial for, and the woman she recorded possibly being murdered had just accused a tech giant of rape.
These facts get intertwined with technological privacy concerns, a fair combination considering the pervasiveness of rape culture means it will get wrapped up in all questions of consent, and rape culture is exactly what Kimi has taken by including these details. Take the scene where Angela, after finally leaving her house in an effort to get the recordings released, meets with an executive at her company. In walks Rita Wilson, clearly an elder woman to Zoë Kravitz’s Angela, and the encounter plays out much like the Connie Britton/Carey Mulligan scene in Promising Young Woman, at least before Mulligan turns the tables on Britton. The elder woman hears the pleas of the younger and efficiently sweeps them away, spouting the same lines used by men to deflect blame and action, a damning observation on how culture is culture, its power structures propped up by everyone.
It’s the best observation either film makes, a brief moment of meaning that doesn’t slow down either movie’s thriller elements, and which both ignore in order to bring about a quick, easy ending. Promising Young Woman drew fair criticism when it ended with the police showing up, an arrest seemingly a victory despite everything we know about the failure of police to prosecute (or in a larger sense curtail the pervasive culture that leads to) violence against women. Kimi pulls the exact same ending, but apparently a lot of people still think that’s fine as long as it’s in service of efficient thrills.
There’s other things underlying Kimi, but this is the heart and soul of Angela, the character Soderbergh keeps a laser focus on, and who Kravitz makes into the character we feel for. There’s great work done while within Angela’s apartment, establishing and building her while still tightening the narrative screws. Soderbergh knows pacing and the technical aspects of filmmaking, but once he has to put that in the context of the wider world, he’s proven willing to sacrifice meaning for thrills. When Kimi opens up, aka when Angela leaves her apartment, he once again recklessly plays with things we simply aren’t in a position to be careless with.
And before you hit me with the “it’s all in good fun, can’t we put aside for a minute?” argument, know that Devin Ratray, who plays the man who comes to Angela’s aid, was arrested between this movie’s filming and release for allegedly assaulting his girlfriend, so no, we can’t put it aside even when we try.
Release: available now on HBO Max
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Writers: David Koepp
Cast: Zoë Kravitz, Rita Wilson, Byron Bowers, and Devin Ratray